May 23, 2013

Horse 1489 - On the Privatisation of the ABC and SBS
The ABC now has more reach than ever before – from an overseas television network and a domestic 24-hour news channel to half a dozen national radio networks and hundreds of online sites. It costs taxpayers more than a billion dollars a year, and there is the SBS as well.
With the federal government and the opposition both looking for cuts – one to deliver its promised budget surplus and the other to unveil plausible election costings – the ABC is bound to come in for close attention. And its new chairman has revealed the corporation has already identified where it could save money, if asked.
-Chris Kenny, The Australian, 24th Sep 2012. Also see Twitter:

I'd like you to imagine for a moment, the nation of Australia in 2020. That's after the election cycles of '13, '16 and '19; time enough for interested parties like the IPA and News Ltd to convince a third term Abbott Government to privatise the ABC and SBS. Assuming that you don't have a subscription to visit News Ltd's or Fairfax's articles which are snuggled up in bed nicely behind their respective paywalls, what sort of journalism do you actually have access to? Where are you going to get your daily source of news from? It is very scarily possible that print will have died entirely by 2020 and also possible that Fairfax will not be viable as an organisation, will have collapsed and/or have been eaten by News Ltd. What then?

As far as television news goes, we're treated to a growing diet of marshmallow fluff being passed off as current affairs on Nine, Seven and Ten.
Think of Sunday (19th May): North Korea launched three test missiles into the Sea of Japan and proved that it had the capability of hitting Seoul with surprising accuracy, if it wanted to. Which of Seven, Nine or Ten carried it on their news networks' five and six o'clock bulletins? None of them; yet both SBS and ABC had it on theirs. Potentially it could result in another protracted war which we'll be dragged into but, because the news isn't "sexy" enough, it wasn't thought worthy enough to put on commercial televisions' news bulletins; maybe because such things don't sell advert space. Yet all of Seven, Nine and Ten ran stories about that Kardashian lady (who is actually famous for what, now?), which is almost as close to non-news as you can get.
When it comes to training new technicians, the ABC is still really the major player when it comes to hiring and mentoring apprentices in TV and Radio production and if they didn't do it, the other networks would suffer. If the ABC were to start charging the commercial networks in both TV and Radio for the value that they invested in staff, there would be a lot of high level screaming.

If the ABC and SBS are privatised, are we also to expect a dumbing down of news content in search of the advertising dollar? Commercial interests often make their money catering for the lowest common denominator and if either the UK's red top newspapers, Australia's mX or even Fox News in the United States is anything to go by, then that lowest common denominator is pretty low and pretty common indeed; by inference commercial interests must assume that the general public is pretty cussing stupid.

As it currently stands, between them, News and Fairfax control most of the market for print. In some cities, News Ltd provides the only daily newspapers. Of course News Ltd would contend that they have a right to free speech (which of course they do) but when only one voice is yelling into the void, you have to ask what rights do the consumers of that free speech have? Just how "free" is free speech when only one voice can be heard?
There is a small yet dedicated following for both the Australian and the Financial Review in Australia, which I suppose says that there is still a market for longer form journalism but if the ABC and SBS were privatised, would we find such things on a commercial basis?
Print and broadcast media might cry blue murder at the existence of a program like Media Watch for instance but what currently stops them from producing such a show themselves? Nothing apart from profits. I note that Channel 10 have invented their own QandA style program in Can Of Worms but it has as much hitting power as being prodded with a soft cushion and being given a comfy chair. Can of Worms contributes as much to the national dialogue as Mr Abbott's visit to the Lawn Bowls factory.

Think of what else the ABC does. Then there are shows on ABC Radio like The Law Report, The Science Show, Insiders, Outsiders; maybe Meet The Press or (praise be Andrew) The Bolt Report fulfil somewhat similar functions but they're all driven with a different agenda. It's always important to remember that everything has an inherent bias but at least the ABC is somewhat open about theirs. Someone like Mr Bolt is prepared to attack the leftist bias of the ABC on his "blog" but hypocritically doesn't acknowledge his own inherent rightest bias. (Actually in the case of Andrew Bolt who has no degrees in any academic endeavour whatsoever, I even doubt that he is aware of his own internal biases).
Why is the ABC so determined to deny that truth - that the vast majority of its journalists lean to the Left? Is it embarrassed that they do? Ashamed of the tag?
Point out that every host of Media Watch in its 24 years has been of the Left, and you get - well, not an outright denial, exactly - a claim that one of the seven actually believes in free speech and free markets, so might not be of the Left, after all.
- Andrew Bolt, The Herald-Sun and The Daily Telegraph, 21st May 2013

In the UK, News Corp has often called for the privatisation of the BBC and if not the BBC, then the privatisation of Radios 1 and 2. To be honest I can't think of any reason why except that it either wants, or has friends that would want to spin a profit out of the commercial space left behind and/or buy them up and swoop the profits themselves (It would be similar to iTunes and the death of record stores). I can't see any difference in motive in Australia either.
At least in the UK when it comes to the market for print media, there are far more players. The Times and Sun, the Grauniad (the Guardian), the Daily Mail, the Express, the Star, the Independent etc. all provide different voices all yelling into the void. You might not like them all but you do have the option of going elsewhere. This largely does not exist in most markets in Australia with your only choices for serious journalism in some cases being either News Ltd or the ABC or nothing else. If the ABC were to be privatised, then the character of the organisation must surely change; almost invariably for the worst.

When the initial tenders were drawn up in Australia for the broadcast networks, it was said at the time that there was really only room for three television networks. The 0-10 network which later became Channel 10 was only expected to be a part time station. SBS on the other hand, was created out of a very different set of circumstances but again, was only ever expected to have a limited audience.
I suspect that a privatisation of the ABC would involve a forced splitting of the TV and Radio networks into two separate organisations, then a merger of the TV portion with SBS. If there wasn't room for the 0-10 network then and arguably still isn't really now, you can bet that a 6 channel ABC-SBS conglomerate wouldn't be allowed to survive, which in turn would lead to a paring back of their bandwidths and channel allowances.
The bottom line here is that neither the ABC or SBS currently survive on a commercial basis and nor do I think that they even would do under a privatisation regime. Unlike Telstra or the Commonwealth Bank, the nature of the type of program content currently provided by the ABC and SBS, isn't provided on a commercial basis and nor do I think it would be in future. A lot of what the ABC and SBS produce is conspicuous by its absence elsewhere. Which of the commercial networks currently produces a show like Sunday Arts? Presumably commercial radio can carry live sport but would they to the same degree that the ABC does? What of the statewide and local networks? The ABC by virtue of being government funded, also has the scope and remit to cover areas which are not otherwise commercially viable. In some parts of the country, the ABC's faint glimmers in the airwaves are your only connection with civilisation; for not even Telstra covers everywhere out there.

Would we even want to live in a country without the ABC or SBS as they currently are? Perhaps oddly, the United States, the home of free enterprise has the answer. It's worth remembering that just over 40 years ago, it was the Public Broadcasting Service which finally helped to bring down President Nixon, simply by honestly reporting the truth when commercial television and radio either could not or would not do so.

 "Public television was doing something that the commercial networks... wouldn't and couldn't do"
- Robert MacNeil, PBS Newshour, 16th May 2013

Recently in the UK, the Leveson Inquiry has asked some very serious questions and even led to legal cases being made against former directors of newspapers due to breaches of simple ethics.
Having quashed any thought that a similar inquiry might be set up here, arguing for the removal of the ABC and SBS leads me to suspect that something sinister is probably almost certainly going on within commercial media in this country. By eliminating the only voices who would be prepared to report the truth should it arise, commercial media would save itself a lot of suspicion.
I would not be surprised if there was bribery going on between News Ltd and the police, or AFP or maybe government agencies and I wouldn't put it beyond them either. It would be incredibly naive to think that there has never been anything "illegal, unethical or improper" with the media in this country. News Ltd is pretty well much the same organisation in both the UK and Australia, with in a lot of cases the same management floating between offices in Thomas More Square, Wapping and say Holt Street, Surry Hills.
It is far easier and lazy for commercial interests to accuse the ABC of being wasteful of money and deny that they should have either the scope or even the right to exist, than it is to write copy of decent quality.

Privatisation of the ABC and SBS, blows open the space left behind in their wake and since this is about the pursuit of profits (which is the only reason that private firms exist), then calling for this to happen in entirely in line with that end.
Remember, the total budget of the ABC is only $1.18bn and compared with the total Federal Budget of $398.3bn, it makes up not even a third of one percent of spending.  Commercial media's cat calling for privatisation of the ABC and SBS is quite frankly gutless.

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